Around 9:05 on Wednesday nights during my childhood, all of my deepest fears coalesced. The dark, stranger-danger, aliens, ghosts—they all haunted me as I took out the trash after watching Unsolved Mysteries. Walking to the side of the garage, I could practically hear Robert Stack intone, “She was last seen just yards from her house.” The show was a sleeper hit for most of its 15-year run, but it was a big influence on today’s more slickly produced crime dramas. And for a generation of families, it reinforced an American-as-apple-pie message: Stay close to home, always lock your doors, and try not to sleep, just in case the danger could come from within.
The hour-long episodes of Unsolved Mysteries featured tales of wanted fugitives, long-lost relatives, conspiracy theories, urban legends, spectral hauntings, and miracles. Probably a quarter of the episodes had a paranormal or conspiratorial bent to them, but these were the big draw. I sat through the stories of jealous lovers and drug killings so that I could hear about the alien abductions—tales that convinced me that every late-night headlight from a passing car was a UFO landing in my front yard. The creators knew where their show’s sweet spot was—Hank Capshaw, one of the series’ many directors, also produced classic television docudramas like Area 51: The Real Story and UFO’s Over Phoenix.
In its prime, Unsolved Mysteries had a dodgy reputation. When the show aired the story of Penn State student Cindy Song’s mysterious disappearance in 2002, Bill Mahon, a university spokesman, told the student paper: “I hope they treat [the case] seriously.” But if there’s anything Unsolved Mysteries did to a fault, it was take cases seriously. It gave credence and gravitas to the most preposterous claims. Faith healers, conspiracy theorists, and UFO watchers received the same macabre respect and sinister music as murderers and child molesters. The “Strange Legends” DVD, one of six themed box sets from Unsolved Mysteries, contains two separate segments about Elvis Presley—one about his “lost twin” and how it haunted the entertainer’s life, and another about his last night (Was Elvis murdered? Maybe!)—alongside the mystery of a “skunk ape” stinking up the Everglades.
As television, Unsolved Mysteries was a throwback to the 1960s. Even its host, Robert Stack, was profiting off of an earlier role he played on The Untouchables. His trench coat and the dark hallway where he intoned the details of the mysteries perfectly complemented the purple prose used to narrate the tales of woe and intrigue. (“It was the happiest day of Karen’s young life. For Richard, it may have been something different. Perhaps nothing more than a means to an end.”) He even managed to sound creepy when recording a holiday greeting. The show’s later hosts, including Virginia Madsen—yes, that Virginia—couldn’t match Stack’s ability to make any crime in the police blotter seem ripe for a soft-focus re-enactment.
The show isn’t on the air anymore. It’s bounced from home to home, most recently settling in on Lifetime, which broadcast two reruns each afternoon for a couple of years. But I still want to know if there was ever a resolution to the case that scared me the most—it involved two boys dying in a fire in an Arkansas shed. Though it was ruled an accident, Unsolved Mysteries revealed that the shed exits had been blocked and the boys may have stumbled onto drug money. Sex, drug money, and corruption—that was Unsolved Mysteries’ golden triumvirate of motive.
The show’s low-budget crime reenactments and pleas for assistance from viewers (“Maybe you can help solve a mystery”) were tawdry and trashy and exploitive, but they worked. Rerun segments about missing loved ones and wanted fugitives alike often concluded with a flashing “update” banner, alerting viewers that the mystery had been solved. Official numbers are hard to come by, but this IMDB poster claims that more than 400 cases have been solved. As of 1996, at least 135 fugitives’ arrests could be tied to Unsolved Mysteries.
Sadly, it was a copycat competitor, America’s Most Wanted, that captured more felons and won the ratings war. That show had a more wide-reaching appeal, mixing stories of global terrorism with repeat sex offenders and murderers. Unsolved Mysteries was, in a way, too high-minded for its own good: The show had a narrow focus and wasn’t going to step out of its conspiracy mindset.
Perhaps the biggest reason Unsolved Mysteries has left the air is that mysteries can now be … solved. DNA tests make it easier to track down suspects, and a popular segment on the possibility that Anastasia survived the execution of the Russian royal family was negated when DNA tests proved the most likely candidate wasn’t a Romanov. The show thrived before the tabloidization of television news. Now, journalists like Nancy Grace and Greta Van Susteren, as well as the entire Court TV franchise, snatch up the good cases. The crime-watch genre has also sped up manically. Natalee Holloway’s disappearance would have been a great topic for Unsolved Mysteries. The reenactment would surely have contained fuzzy shots of drinks with umbrellas and people dancing to generic “club music.” But by the time Unsolved Mysteries could have produced a segment, audiences would have already been bored by Nancy Grace’s coverage.
Cindy Song, the Penn State student, is still missing. Maybe it was visitors from afar who did it—as Unsolved Mysteries realized, like the victim’s family, the casual viewer always wants more why. The show’s grandiose claims that an accident could have been something greater seemed to lend importance to the victim and crime and grant more evil to the perpetrator. Some mysteries, of course, will happily never be solved, regardless of airtime and manpower, which explains why the Unsolved Mysteries DVDs have sold any copies at all. The show reminds us to be grateful, as our own good fortune could be fleeting—after all, a poltergeist or murderer (or a murderous poltergeist) could be lurking anywhere.